State Had Duty To Upgrade Intersection To Current Design Standards

In the case of Risner v. Ohio Department of Transportation, the Tenth District Court of Appeals of Ohio held, in a fatal motor vehicle accident case, that the state's erection of overhead flashing lights and advance warning signs at an intersection were substantial improvements to highway facilities, rather than maintenance, and thereby imposed a duty on the state to upgrade the intersection to the design standards that were in effect at the time of installation.

Background of the case

The plaintiffs filed claims for wrongful death and survivorship as a result of an accident that caused the death of their daughter. The accident occurred around midnight on September 12, 2009 in Pike County, Ohio, at the intersection of State Route 220 and State Route 32, a four-lane, divided highway. At the intersection, motorists traveling on State Route 220 were required to stop, indicated by a stop sign and an overhead flashing red light before encountering State Route 32. Motorists on State Route 32 did not have to stop, but were notified of the intersection by warning signs and an overhead flashing yellow light. The decedent was a front-seat passenger in a vehicle traveling northbound on State Route 220. The vehicle stopped at the stop sign, then, after seeing no vehicles approaching, the driver proceeded to drive into the intersection without stopping in the median. The vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer traveling westbound on State Route 32. The collision resulted in the decedent's death.

The state built the intersection in the mid-1990s during an upgrade of State Route 32, when it was converted from two lanes to a four-lane, divided highway. The overhead flashing red and yellow lights and advance warning signs were added to State Route 220 and State Route 32 in 2000 and 2004.

The plaintiffs' claim asserted that the state was negligent in the design and maintenance of the intersection, claiming that there was a lack of sight distance to approaching motorists at the intersection, as well as the use of overhead red and yellow flashing lights at the intersection instead of a four-way stop-and-go traffic light.

The trial court summarily denied the claims on the ground that the installation of overhead flashing lights and advance warning signs were maintenance of the highway, not construction, and, therefore, by law the state had no duty to use current design standards to upgrade the intersection.

The Tenth District's ruling

The Tenth District stated that, while the state's duty to maintain highways does not include a duty to make improvements, in this case the state's erection of flashing lights and warning signs in 2000 and 2004 constituted improvements, rather than maintenance, since it involved the addition of completely new components. As a result, the state had a duty to upgrade the entire intersection to current design standards. Maintenance, said the court, only involves changes which preserve the existing highway and keep it in good repair without totally reconstructing or redesigning it. The court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Motor vehicle accident claimants are urged to seek the advice of a competent attorney experienced in such matters in order to protect their legal rights.